Review

Designed from the ground up to be a real truck and not some hopped-up, car-based mini-SUV, the Sportage sports tough ladder-frame construction, shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive, and a Mazda-based 2.0-liter, 16-valve engine that makes a rather meager 130 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. A standard five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic makes sure as much of that power reaches the rear or all four wheels as possible.

The Sportage comes in two body styles, a two-door soft-top convertible and a four-door hardtop, with either 2WD or 4WD. For 2002, Kia will offer both body styles in just one trim level, meaning that hardtop buyers can no longer choose between base, EX and Limited trim. That's OK, because the standard hardtop now comes with more features, including air conditioning, alloy wheels, privacy glass and an upgraded audio system. The leather upholstery option (formerly included in the Limited package) has been deleted.

Convertibles are a bit more sparely equipped than the four-doors, but you still get lumbar adjustment for the driver, a tilt steering wheel, a full-size spare tire and power windows, mirrors and door locks. Air conditioning, alloy wheels and a stereo with a cassette or CD player are available as options. You can option any Sportage with four-wheel ABS, cruise control and keyless entry.

In spite of its generous equipment list, interior materials are not the Sportage's strong suit. The quality of the Kia's headliner, dash panel and seat fabric falls well below that of competitors like the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Xterra and Toyota RAV4. But none of those SUVs can boast of a driver knee airbag (in addition to the requisite front airbags), which comes with every Sportage.

The Sportage looks rugged yet cute, perfect for family duty in the suburbs or a jaunt along the coastline. On the pavement, the sport-ute inspires confidence and is fun to drive. Lotus engineers worked wonders with its suspension, which includes a relatively sophisticated double-wishbone arrangement up front. Overall, the Kia feels stable and comfortable.

On off-road trails, the sport-ute's short, sloping hood allows excellent visibility for climbing or descending hills, and its suspension soaks up ruts and bumps without bottoming out thanks to 7.9 inches of ground clearance.

Seating positions are high and upright, and the user-friendly layout of the dashboard and most controls makes the Sportage easy to live with. Rear-seat riders get minimal legroom, but "stadium style" seating offers a clear view of the outside world. Cargo room behind the rear seat in hardtop models measures 25.8 cubic feet; with the back seat folded, capacity increases to 55.4.

This is the last year for the current Sportage, as it will take a year off to make room for production of the all-new midsize '03 Sorento. While still a decent vehicle even in its eighth year on the market (and worth consideration if you can get a great deal on one), its spare furnishings, meager power supply, "old-fashioned" body-on-frame construction are unlikely to appeal to those who can afford a CR-V or RAV4. A redesigned Sportage -- likely employing unibody construction for better on-road handling -- is expected for the 2004 model year.

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